Valencia have been one of Barcelona’s trickier domestic opponents in recent years, although given that Barcelona beat them 5-1 only last season there is still a sizable gap between the two sides. Previous manager Unai Emery was keen to press Barcelona high up the pitch but the huge reserves of energy required to maintain this for 90 minutes, allied to the quality of Barcelona’s players, have generally made this strategy unsustainable. Barcelona’s gameplan will be their usual – Tito Vilanova has returned formational stability to a side that began to experiment tactical under Pep Guardiola – but Valencia’s recent turnover of managers makes their approach less certain.
Valencia’s move to a 4-2-1-3
In the few weeks that he has been at Valencia, Ernesto Valverde has seemingly sought to minimise the tactical changes from the 4-2-3-1 system the club has played for a number of season. However one key alteration Valverde has made has been the role of the central advanced midfielder in the band of three. Previously Jonas was used as a deep forward operating close to Roberto Soldado but Valverde has appeared to favour greater midfield solidity by moving Jonas wide and playing a naturally deeper lying player, such as Ever Banega. This in turn has allowed Valencia’s wide players greater attacking freedom, making their shape resemble a 4-2-1-3.
Banega’s position is a versatile one, and is similar to the role of Toni Kroos for Bayern Munich. Against weaker opposition Banega can be aggressive with his positioning, looking to find space between the lines to create opportunities for the three forwards ahead. Against stronger opposition, such as Real Madrid in a recent La Liga fixture, Banega can drop deeper to offer more support in midfield. This positioning can also evolve during a game to reflect Valencia’s approach.
Barcelona clearly merit Banega dropping into a deeper role to help Valencia compete with Barcelona’s midfield. If Valverde decides to adopt Emery’s approach of aggressive pressing, Banega will push on to Sergio Busquets; if Valencia opt to drop deeper he can occupy Xavi, allowing Tino Costa and David Albelda to focus on Cesc Fabregas and Leo Messi dropping off the front line.
Valencia’s left flank
Valverde’s other change to the Valencia line-up has been to withdraw the more conservative Andres Guardado from left midfield to full back to include a natural attacking player on the left flank in line with Valencia’s adoption of a 4-2-1-3 system. Historically Valencia have targeted Barcelona’s right flank and the space behind Dani Alves, but on occasion have also fielded two natural full backs to counter the Brazilian’s attacks. In recent seasons this made sense – Barcelona’s attacking width came predominantly down the right from Alves, whose energy and attacking purpose made him Europe’s most feared full back.
Unfortunately for Valverde Barcelona now have another dangerous attacking full back on the left side of their defence in Jordi Alba, previously one of the Valencia’s left backs tasked with marking Alves. Focusing the defence on the left flank is no longer an option, and both Valencia wide forwards will need to be alert. However this also means that both flanks can potentially be exploited, so Jonas and Pablo Piatti, Valencia’s likely wide forwards, will have to balance defensive awareness with offering a target for counter attacks.
Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta overloading midfield
In theory a 4-2-1-3 against a 4-1-2-3 should result in a congested midfield as the positive midfield triangle of Valencia nullifies and negative midfield triangle of Barcelona, and vice versa. Yet Messi and Iniesta change that by constantly dropping in to midfield positions making the midfield contest 5 vs 3 in Barcelona’s favour. As previously mentioned, Banega may be instructed to ignore Busquets and mark Xavi instead, leaving Albelda and Costa to cover the area occupied by Fabregas, Iniesta and Messi. This is never an easy job, and it is Barcelona’s success in this area that has made them the great side that they are.
Valencia’s defence face the dilemma of following players into midfield or staying in position. The full backs will likely prefer to remain wide, both to cover runs from Barcelona’s full backs and allow Jonas and Piatti the freedom to stay high up the pitch, and also to offer an attacking option when Valencia win possession. Therefore the centre backs will likely have to judge when to remain in position and when to follow Messi’s runs towards midfield.
Finally is Banega does drop back to mark Xavi, Jonas, Piatti and Soldado will have to take turns to occupy Busquets. Busquets is a vastly underrated player in Barcelona’s side, and his tactical understanding is excellent. Given time he is capable of dictating the play from a deep midfield role and moving forward if space opens up ahead of him.
Barcelona will naturally dominate possession, but Valverde’s recent modifications to Valencia’s shape may work in their favour. Banega’s role is crucial, providing the link between midfield and attack and determining Valencia’s approach with his positioning relative to Barcelona’s players. But as always Barcelona have so many options and so much quality that it is difficult to make a tactical case for a side to better them. In previous years Valencia have adopted an extremely aggressive approach against Barcelona, but while it has earned them respect it has rarely earned them points. Under Valverde Valencia will probably content themselves with attacking in phases, occasionally leaving their wide forwards in advanced areas in the hope that they can threaten on the counter attack.